Welcome to the Machine

January 16, 2010

With apologies to Pink Floyd

I’m going to be a little more philosophical than usual today, as a topical story has come up related to technology that I think is worth talking about. I’ll add an economic angle to it, thanks to the help of the good folks as BusinessWeek towards the end.

A friend of mine pointed me to an article on a book by Jaron Lanier, who among other things coined the term “virtual reality.” Sadly, I haven’t been able to find the specific article he gave me. (It was a print out that I recycled before deciding I was going to write about it.) There is a good summary of his topic in the New York Times book review.

In this new book, “You Are Not A Gadget,” Lanier argues against something called the technological singularity. This is a difficult term to define exactly, but in principle, I interpret it as the idea that technology will improve to such a point that humanity will become one with it. Also, humanity will augment themselves, or alternately be so immersed in technology that individuality will be insignificant. Anyway, that’s a lot to pack into a single term, so it’s easy to see why there’s a lot of confusion about it.

Most of the arguments I have seen on the singularity has always remarked that this is something to be embraced. It is the savior of humanity, and the one possible thing that will prevent us from annihilating ourselves.

Lanier, however, argues that technological singularity is something to be feared and not embraced. His book argues that as we increase our interconnected nature, we must necessarily decrease our individualism. He points to Wikipedia as an important example of this concept. Individual voices are pushed out for the good of the collective work. Even experts are disregarded in favor of a collective “hive mind” interpretation of articles.

He takes this argument to its logical conclusion that if this continues we will enter “a persistent somnolence” with no real culture to speak of, just the hive.

Certainly, I would argue that we have not reached that state, and there are definitely many other results that could come about, as the result of the hive mind. However, I think there is something to his argument, and this is a result that needs to be avoided.

How we do that is where the Business Week article comes in. Nanette Byrnes argues that people like Conan O’Brien and talented people as a whole are being severely undervalued. The “knowledge workers” of this age can suffer greatly at the hands of those managing them. Oftentimes, the management “hive mind” couldn’t replace the content that an inspired individual can create. This results in a weakened product that is less successful for everyone, both company and client.

This problem is where I think the question of the technological singularity’s effect will be answered. If individuality, talent and creativity can thrive then this will be a positive development. If these things fail or cease to grow, then this will be a negative development.

I hope to read Jaron Lanier’s book at some point, and if there is interest, I’ll write a follow-up.

Do you have any thoughts on this topic? Let me know if the comments.